LAS VEGAS (AP) — Eric Church's nickname is "Chief," and early on at the Academy of Country Music Awards that title was spot-on.
This year's top nominee won album of the year for his breakthrough "Chief" on Sunday night, giving him two trophies and a tie for the early lead with Little Big Town. He also performed, singing his somber but powerful song "Like Jesus Does" with only an acoustic guitar and a backup singer.
"I can't believe I just met John Fogerty," Church said as he accepted the award from the Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman and Miranda Lambert. "We should hang out later."
Little Big Town had two wins for vocal group and video of the year, Florida Georgia Line won for new artist and husband and wife Shawna and Keifer Thompson continued their feel-good story as Thompson Square won its second straight vocal duo of the year award.
Shawna Thompson gave a shoutout to her mother from stage.
Tears came to her eyes backstage as she explained that her father had recently passed away and she wanted to acknowledge her mother during her acceptance speech to support her.
"She's just having a really hard time," she said.
Blake Shelton kicked the show off with his new single "Boys 'Round Here," a hip-hop-flavored ode to redneck swag. He was joined by Bryan, Brad Paisley, Sheryl Crow and Pistol Annies, a trio that includes his wife Miranda Lambert.
George Strait made his first appearance of the night, singing "Give It All We Got Tonight." Lady Antebellum debuted new song "Downtown" and Charles Kelley finished off the song by rubbing pregnant trio-mate Hillary Scott's belly. Carrie Underwood stepped out of a black Cadillac parked on stage as she started her song, "Two Black Cadillacs."
Co-hosts Shelton and Bryan — who have given themselves the celebrity couple name "Bluke" — immediately took it off-color as they insulted each other during their monologue.
"How about a shout out to the Sherwin-Williams company for spray-painting Luke's jeans on," Shelton joked as the camera zoomed in on Bryan's, ahem, mid-section.
Bryan took his turn: "Blake's jeans are like buying something on credit — nothing up front. I mean, what size are those, extra empty?"
The focus of this year's ACM Awards is on the men of country, and it's not just Shelton and Bryan taking the spotlight.
Church started the night with an award before he even hit the red carpet, winning vocal event of the year for his collaboration with Bryan and Jason Aldean on "The Only Way I Know."
"It's still kinda strange to me," Church said on the red carpet. "It's been a long journey, a long path. I can't control what I'm nominated for. I really have nothing to do with win or lose. We could win all seven, lose all seven. I promise you it won't affect anything. We're going to make the same kind of music, the same kind of show. Whatever happens happens."
The night was a showcase for country's men of the moment — and for its two dominant male stars of the last two decades, the marquee meeting of Brooks and Strait. They are two of music's top-selling artists regardless of genre, but have never performed together.
They will help honor the show's longtime producer Dick Clark, who passed away last year. The academy is naming its artist of the decade award for Clark, whose tenure with the show began in 1979.
The moment will be special — and not just for the millions watching at home. It has country's biggest stars abuzz as well.
"Having George and Garth on stage together at one time on an awards show will become one of the most important pieces of tape in country music history," Dierks Bentley said.
Shelton, Bryan and Aldean are up for the fan-voted entertainer of the year award — though they're facing off against academy favorite Miranda Lambert, who is Shelton's wife, and two-time winner Swift, a heavy favorite to three-peat given her relationship with fans.
Kelley of Lady Antebellum said the best of country would be on display during the show, and urged country newbies to tune in.
"It'll give you a broad spectrum of what country music is all about. There are so many styles that kind of fall under the same umbrella, so it's a good representation of the genre," he said.
Shelton is arguably country's most visible male today. "The Voice" coach has a weekly presence on national television, was the recent winner of the rival Country Music Association's entertainer of the year award and has risen to platinum status again after a mid-career lull that's a distant memory.
Aldean is country's best-selling male artist at the moment and Church and Bryan have recently joined him as acts who can fill arenas and reach multiplatinum sales.
They're so prevalent at this year's awards, they've elbowed out traditional nominees like Brad Paisley, who was shut out of the nominations for the first time since 1999, and Kenny Chesney, a perennial entertainer of the year nominee who was left out of the category despite putting on 2012's most talked about event — his stadium tour with Tim McGraw.
Hayes will be joined by another performer who got his start as a precocious teen — Stevie Wonder, making his first appearance on the show.
AP Writer Hannah Dreier contributed to this report.
Follow AP Music Writer Chris Talbott: http://twitter.com/Chris_Talbott.